In Maryland, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is remembered for several things: her two terms as lieutenant governor under Parris Glendening, her subsequent failed gubernatorial bid and, in more recent years, her advocacy for retirement savings plans. But this week, she graduated from Free State political footnote to courageous truth-teller on the national stage by challenging her own brother and his Alternative Fact of the Week-worthy approach to vaccines.
For those who don’t follow such things, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., third child of Robert and Ethel Kennedy and nephew to former President John F. Kennedy, is not only a well-known environmental lawyer (and president of the board of the Waterkeeper Alliance), he is chairman of an advocacy group that alleges children suffer from a host of maladies stemming from vaccinations. Cases of autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, allergies and certain autoimmune disorders all are traceable, Children’s Health Defense claims, to the use of vaccines. That is, of course, unsupported by science, which has well established that whatever minor risks of childhood vaccinations may exist, they are easily outweighed by the benefits.
This week, Ms. Townsend and two other members of her family wrote a commentary for Politico, “RFK Jr. Is Our Brother and Uncle. He’s Tragically Wrong About Vaccines.” The threesome correctly point out that the recent measles outbreak has been worsened by the growing fear and distrust of vaccines amplified on the internet by “doomsayers” like, well, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. “He has helped to spread dangerous misinformation over social media and is complicit in sowing distrust of the science behind vaccines,” they lament.
The Kennedy family members go on to point out that they “love Bobby” but can’t ignore the reality that immunizations save millions of people around the globe every year — and could save 1.5 million more, as the World Health Organization has pointed out, if they were more widely available. This is an especially painful lesson to teach a fellow Kennedy, given that it was President Kennedy who in 1961 spoke out on behalf of the then-emerging polio vaccine as a “miraculous” drug. Around the same time, he signed an executive order creating the U.S. Agency for International Development, a leading advocate for vaccinations in developing countries.
Anti-vaxxers come in all political shapes and sizes, of course. Alternative Fact All-Star and reverse billionaire President Donald Trump has had his own flirtations with the movement — including a 2014 tweet connecting vaccinations to autism and his odd remark at a 2015 Republican debate in which he linked autism to vaccinations again but suggested perhaps vaccines could be administered in “smaller doses over a longer period of time.” Thank you, Dr. Trump. But even he has gotten on the anti-measles bandwagon in recent days, telling reporters last month that children “have to get those shots” and that “vaccinations are so important.” Of course, he made that observation while on the way to a National Rifle Association convention, but one recognition of a serious threat to the health and safety of American children at a time, one supposes.
We won’t bother to repeat the kind of misinformation bandied about by those who oppose vaccines but rather would urge everyone to take heed of the data collected by the Centers for Disease Control’s Immunization Safety Office. Their conclusion? That the U.S. vaccine supply has never been safer, that serious adverse reactions are rare and that the risks of not vaccinating are substantial. No doubt Mr. Kennedy’s group sees such information as Big Pharma or WHO propaganda, but it is the anti-vaxxers who are putting young lives at risk, not the drug companies or medical professionals.
There was a time when we could be amused by the tin-foil-hatted conspiracy theorists who reject science and embrace superstition and half-truths. But in the digital age, the stakes have been raised. The top threat of the vaccine age is no longer complacency — the tendency of parents to let their guard down as childhood diseases like chickenpox, diphtheria or pertussis are conquered — it is those who would willfully incite fear of immunization (and have a platform to do so thanks to social media). If anything, Ms. Townsend was overly kind in her criticisms of her brother, but she was still courageous to take him on.